Appointment with Annie

Before I go any further with this piece, I have to answer the question that begs to be asked: “Who the hell is Annie?”

OK, so Annie, as in Annie Haslam, the singer of Renaissance, a progressive rock band from Britain.  They had their heyday in the 1970s, notably three sold out shows at Carnegie Hall, New York (yes,  the same one as “How can I get to Carnegie Hall”) in 1975.  Yes, this band was mainly popular in the North Eastern part of US along with Pennsylvania and a smaller following in some Midwestern pockets like Chicago, with New York (the city as well as upstate New York) being its largest fanbase.  It would surprise many to know that the hip New York City that birthed hip hop in the late 70s and supported many offbeat acts like Talking Heads or Robert Fripp on his brief solo sojourn also liked this symphonic rock outfit which could be beautiful and soulful but hardly be described as unconventional or left-field or cutting-edge.  An image of the band in its classic lineup will clarify this better than my words can:

Renaissance-1976-tour

Yes, the woman in the white dress is Annie.  She trained for a few months under an opera singer but her working class family as well as her own day job together couldn’t foot the bill for a long enough education to actually cast her into a classical orbit and she resorted to singing for bands.  She auditioned for Renaissance at a time when they seemed to be rather running out of singers. Their high point was the UK top 10 single Northern Lights.  The decline came swiftly after – you can well imagine the difficulties faced by such a band in adapting to the synth laden 80s.  Annie had a long solo career (in America, where she moved to in 1988) after the band broke up seemingly for good in 1987 and even drifted fulltime into painting for a while in the noughties before bringing back the band, in a manner of speaking, in 2008.  I could dwell on why I say in a manner of speaking, but the band history isn’t the focus of this write up so you can get more details from good old wiki:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance_(band)

Anyhow…I came to know of this band in 2008.  Shortly thereafter, I fell in love with Jeff Buckley’s voice.  To the chagrin of my metalhead friends, I left metal behind for Jeff and Annie and a still growing list of, well, singer-songwriters, progressive rock bands, etc.

There was another side to this.  As you know, 2008 was the year of the meltdown.  I was fuming with rage at the capitalist class for playing everyone for suckers and obtaining a grand bailout to backstop their failures, while Billy Blow & co were put out to pasture.  This was the time I began to read dystopian fiction; 1984 and Brave New World have remained among my favourite reads since then.

But as I embraced this dark reality, I needed the light of hope too.  In this context, I found Annie’s life story very inspiring.  It is not a classic rags to riches overnight success story.  Arguably, she never got the success she should have with her voice.  Whether that is because ponderous symphonic epics placed a ceiling on their popularity, because she refused quid pro quo offers from music industry big shots, because her bandmates may at times have had difficulties dealing with the attention a singer (particularly a female singer in an otherwise all male band) tends to attract, one can endlessly speculate. But in the face of this lack of recognition and continued hardships as she tried to stay afloat in a dwindling music market, Annie has never stopped dreaming (she crowdfunded a set of concerts with an orchestra, which costs a lot for an independent band to organise).  More importantly, she has never stopped greeting the audience with her trademark full 32 teeth smile and her laugh.  What I could not glean from all the wise books I read (I know, foolish me!), I learnt from her life experience – that happiness is a state of mind and not a destination.

Now…demographically and geographically, I am a very unlikely Renaissance fan – early millennial living in Mumbai, India.  I am probably not the only one because I was able to pick up Novella and Song for All Seasons CDs from the grand Landmark store (RIP) at Phoenix, Lower Parel.  But I have never met these other Indian Renaissance fans; the only ones I know are from an online music community that we were all part of and we introduced each other to music we liked.

All of which meant seeing Renaissance live was and is a distant dream for me. I have twice been to USA on visits but both visits were either too late or too early, as applicable, for the Renaissance concert ‘season’.

So when Annie offered the option of a skype chat during her 2019 crowdfunding campaign, I bit the bullet.  Not gonna mention what it cost, but my motivation wasn’t purely just to get the chance to talk to her (as a sort of substitute to watching the band live) but also to help the campaign along.  As Renaissance fans on average (most are boomers, as you’d expect) get older, the campaigns have become more difficult and required extensions of the deadline to meet the target.

The concerts happened and went well.  By now, I would have received the DVD for one of the shows (which they shot on video) but for coronavirus but there it is.

And in December end, I gingerly pinged Annie on Facebook about the skype chat.  She politely asked for time as she was busy with the post production work in Jan and suggested Jan end/early Feb.  I reminded her as suggested and after a few back and forths as we tried to work out a date mutually convenient with this huge timezone difference, I finally got a date and time.  Let me add that during this exchange, at no point did she convey any irritation to me in spite of my repeatedly following up with her.  Not that I wouldn’t have understood and taken it in my stride; she’s in her 70s now.

Through this period, a mixture of excitement and apprehension built up in my head. I made out a list of questions to ask her and then pruned it, realising that I had way too many for the 30 minute window allotted for the chat.  I was also apprehensive about how it would go.  After all, I didn’t know her on a personal level and only knew her songs and that’s a big difference. I have largely only come across positive stories from fans of their interactions with her but there were the odd not so nice ones too.  You know the Forrest Gump dialogue about box of chocolates; I wondered which it was gonna be for me.

As it happened, my chat was on a weeknight (8:30 to be precise).  After my long, long commute back home, I had just enough time to catch some breath after dinner.  Before I knew it, it was time for the chat.  And as I looked at Annie smiling from the other end, my mind went blank, yikes!  Suddenly, the long questionnaire just disappeared and I was at a loss for words.  I honestly confessed to her that I was struggling to think of something to say because this was my first interaction (well, audio-video interaction) with her.  She simply said, “Oh, that’s alright” and began to ask me about the Hindu religion (one of her brothers is an ISCKON-ite).  I finally relaxed and began to get a conversation going with her.

Somewhat like the way her voice straddles several octaves from the mid third to the high sixth, the conversation went from surging highs to dark lows.  The hard reality was that while Annie has had the determination to see her dreams through, they have not come without a price and for a creative person (she herself says only the right side of her brain works), juggling the numbers can be an ordeal.  When I told her I work as an accountant with the usual accountant apology for working in a boring job, she said, “Oh! But you must be making money.”  Whatever else I had expected to hear from the songbird of progressive rock, it wasn’t that.  But such is life.  There’s more there which I may not want to put out here on the blog.  But she also described meeting Jon Baez.  I have read about it in interviews but it was a different experience to see the admiration in Annie’s eyes when she described it.

As we chatted on, we had crossed the half hour time limit but Annie wasn’t reminding me about it and I kept it going.  I then decided to mention an unusual experience that I had had.  One of my aunts had come down with cancer last year and been given a dire prognosis.  She was in Chennai in the care of extended family and I felt helpless sitting here more than a thousand km away in Mumbai.  Now (and I did not tell you this until this point!) Annie too had breast cancer in the 90s and has overcome it and lived to tell the tale.  Annie was in the process of recording an album called Blessing In Disguise at the time.  Somehow, these circumstances conspired to finally lift her solo career to at least a modest level of success that could sustain the effort. The title track of the album is like a prayer and sung acapella (with producer Tony Visconti providing male backing vocals). I began to sing it every day as a prayer for my aunt.  In the beginning, I would not be able to make it through without crying.  But by and by, the song seemed to give me strength to live with my grief and I was able to sing it through with renewed faith that my aunt would beat the diagnosis.

In the meantime, her relatives decided to administer Ayurveda as a last ditch effort to save her.  Whether it was Ayurveda or Blessing In Disguise or both, I don’t know, but my aunt survived and is still alive.

When I related this to Annie, she expressed surprise at the story and asked a little bit more about it.  We then moved onto other topics and eventually ended what had been an hour long chat.  I thought that was the end of it….

But when I woke up the next day, I saw that Annie had left a mail asking me for more details about my aunt.  She said she wanted to put a message on her own FB account about it because she had found my story very inspiring.  I was stunned and couldn’t thank her enough.  I composed a message and sent it to her.  She put it up on her FB and I received many messages of support from other Renaissance fans, people I have never met and may never.

There’s more.  Visconti (yes, same one I mentioned above) read the message and shared it on his own timeline too.  I tried to leave a message of thanks but I would have had to be on his list to do so.  So I conveyed my thanks to him through Annie.  For those who may not know, Visconti is a legendary producer in rock music and has produced albums for a plethora of artists including T Rex, David Bowie, Strawbs, Mary Hopkins, Elaine Page, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, etc.

I had no idea, when I had told Annie about my experience, that this would snowball into something that I would never forget for the rest of my life.  Just to clarify, I had never suggested this idea to her or anything of the sort; as I said, i thought the story had ended with my recounting this to her.  I had no idea she would volunteer this tremendously generous gesture.

Interestingly (since we are living in Corona-times), Annie has long been an advocate of masks while travelling and has avoided shaking hands while touring.  She said she had on a couple of occasions fallen sick while interacting with fans and she couldn’t take the chance, both for the sake of her health and because it would disrupt her touring schedule. In early March, she put out a message with an old photo of hers wearing a mask and urged others to wear masks and stay safe.  I am guessing some dingbat (there’s always one, unfortunately) got political and nasty with her and she felt hurt and took down the post.  I wrote a message of support to her saying I appreciated her well intentioned message and that we in India had started wearing masks too.  She thanked me and urged me to wear masks (I already was) with a cute mask emoticon to go with it.

Of course, eventually, the US administration itself began to recommend masks, going back on their earlier stand and Annie put up a photo again of herself wearing a mask.  This time, it seems to have gone down well.

Yes, love and sunshine to you as well, Annie and long may you live!

 

 

9 Responses to “Appointment with Annie”

  1. Karthik Says:

    Madan, this is a wonderful write-up. Having had more than one aunt living thousands of miles away go through what you describe, the story struck a chord.

    I also continue to be amazed at the depth and breadth of your musical knowledge.

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks so much, Karthik. Glad the story resonated with you. I lost my grandfather (mother’s father) to cancer too. Last stage. It was painful.

  2. AdhithyaKR Says:

    This was a very heartwarming story, Madan. It felt great to hear about the impact of music and the role it played in helping you endure (and maybe change?) a painful experience. Also, it’s good to know that there’s so much positivity in the world, that people you have never met and may never meet reached out to you in this manner.
    In the bargain, I also discovered a great singer I hadn’t heard about. Thanks!

    • Madan Says:

      Thanks Adithya. Yes, in these dark times, it’s important to remember our capacity for humanity.

      Feel free to ask if you need any recommendations on Annie Haslam’s work, will be glad to fire away.

    • Madan Says:

      I have no idea what your preferences in Western music are so I am going to stick with the shorter songs for now. Posting a few clips here:

      Northern Lights:

      I think of you:

      Forever Changing:

      Ocean Gypsy:

      Just one live clip as a teaser of what she is like in concert. Carpet of the Sun:

  3. bart Says:

    Very well written Madan. Thanks for introducing me to Annie and her melodic voice.Its also humbling to see her inner self tuned in with her voice.

    • Madan Says:

      Most welcome, bart. Yes, it was so wonderful to realise and experience first hand that the angelic thoughts and emotions she expresses in her singing are a part of her true self and not make-believe.

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